Friday, April 15, 2011

Gender Identity, Columnists, Made-Up News, and Pink Nail Polish, Oh My!

While researching my media bias project, I came across an article discussing the "controversy" over a recent J Crew ad campaign that featured artistic director Jenna Lyons playing with her 5-year-old son who was -- gasp!-- wearing pink nail polish on his toes. I laughed at the article, with its made-up controversy and just ridiculousness--and assumed that it would go no farther than that. Apparently the next day Fox news columnist Dr. Keith Ablow posted this column about the horrific pink nail polish incident, in which he compares Jenna painting her son's toenails pink (at his request, while playing dressup) to children undergoing sex change surgeries and black people dying their skin white. He writes, "These folks are hostile to the gender distinctions that are actually part of the magnificient synergy that creates and sustains the human race. They respect their own creative notions a lot more than any creative Force in the universe." Ok, one guy writes an inflammatory column with his personal opinion - fine. But it ends here, right? Or not. LA Times. New York Magazine. CBS News. Chicago Tribune. The Daily Show. All using words like "outrage" "controversy" "sparks debate" "panic" - all designed to make you think something outrageous was going on (Jon Stewart pointed out that one of the headlines was "See what J Crew director Jenna Lyons has done to her son" - which sounds A LOT worse than pink nail polish!) All of this from a few swipes of pink paint on a little boy's toes. To be fair, many of these news outlets were criticizing Ablow and the other people quoted in the original Fox report for making such a big deal out of it - but it was all done carefully to provoke maximum scandal attention and make it seem like a much bigger deal than the non-issue is really is. Before you know it, a week has gone by, the little boy has long since gone back to playing with his toy trucks and throwing things at his brother and the news cycle is still spinning itself into a frenzy over his precious gender identity.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

"It's What I Do"

I recently came across this essay by NY Times photographer Lynsey Addario, who was recently captured by Libyan forces (she was in that video I posted last week.) In this essay, she talks about the controversy over sending female correspondents to war zones, especially in the Middle East. Just read it.

Addario calls the world of conflict correspondence a "boys club", seh theorizes that this may because women have a hard time giving up completely on having a personal life. And she emphasizes that the vast majority of her experience in the Muslim world has been positive, with people being kind and hospitable to her wherever she goes.

But she was captured by Libyan forces last week, and was beaten and groped by the soldiers. Addario asks, "But why is that more horrible than what happened to Tyler or Steve or Anthony--being smashed on the back of the head with a rifle butt? Why isn't anyone saying men shouldn't cover war? Women and men should do what they believe they need to do."

Do you agree with her that a female photographer/reporter brings something unique to the story, with her access to Muslim homes and the private spaces of women? Do you think it doesn't matter--that it's sexist to prevent women from doing the same jobs as men no matter what?

Do you think horrific incidents like what happened to Lara Logan, the chief foreign correspondent for CBS News who was beaten and sexually assaulted while covering the Tahrir Square revolution two months ago, change our view on putting female reporters into areas where they may not be treated with respect? Should the reporters themselves be the ones to make that choice? Whose responsibility is it to make sure the reporter is safe--and what do they do in a situation where one reporter will be more safe than another?

Thursday, March 31, 2011

But I'm a Journalist!

Earlier this week, four NY Times journalists were held by Qaddafi troops in Libya. Although they were threatened and beaten, all four were handed over unharmed the next day. In this video, the four journalists talk about their experience. There are several aspects of this remarkable video that jump out at me as being worthy of discussion. First is the calm tone and detached way the journalists speak about their own, very recent, traumatic experience. They almost seem to be curious about the story, investigating and thinking about it journalistically the same way they would look at any other story. The first journalist notes the way his experience showed him the "three different Libyas" that exist in the rebel camp, on the Qaddafi front lines, and in the center of the country. The second, the only woman in the group, talks about how her being groped and mistreated shows her something interesting, journalistically, about what's happening in Libya. The second interesting point is the indignance of all of them have about this experience. Although they don't seem as traumatized as you would expect, they are a little taken aback at their treatment because they are journalists. It seems like they have some kind of expectation that their role in the conflict be recognized as apolitical and of importance to both sides. But I'm a journalist! they seem to say, why would I be treated this way? There has been so much talk in the last few years about how journalists will all be replaced with "citizen journalists" and bloggers in this glorious new post-newspaper age. But the crises of the last few months--both in the Middle East and Japan--have reminded the world that there are some things only a journalist can and will do. Of course, I don't think Qaddafi's forces roughed up these Times reporters because they were thinking about the irrelevance of the professional journalists in the Age of Twitter. (Although you never know...) But it is interesting to note that maybe now that the lines between producer and consumer of news has gotten so blurry, the argument for journalistic diplomatic immunity doesn't work the way it once was. So you're a journalist? So is every kid with a cameraphone and a Twitter account. If every citizen is a journalist, is every journalist just a citizen--and in this case, an American citizen in a hostile land?

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Manic Semantic Antics

On Tuesday's episode of the Daily Show, Jon Stewart attempts to talk to his "senior Libya correspondent" Aasif Mandvi, about the war in Libya that the US is leading in an attempt to create regime change in.....except that Mandvi interrupts Stewart after literally every word. It's not a "war" its an "enforced no fly zone"'s not "led by the US" its "enabled by the US"'s not bombing, its "building-enrubblification"'s not "regime change" its "encouraging leadership self-relocation." (The title of my blog post comes from Jon Stewart and his incredible writing team.) Finally, Mandvi explains why he can't call the Libya situation a war:
"We can't be at war. We never consulted Congress."
That got me thinking about the way the word for an action in a way defines it. We might be bombing Tripoli, but since "war" comes along with certain rules and expectations, let's just not call it a war.
So is it a war? NPR tackled this question in an article on its website, listing all the news publications (NY Times, CNN, etc etc) that are referring to "Operation Odyssey Dawn" (more on that ridiculous name later) a "war". But according to the professor of military history that NPR interviewed, the operation in Libya is at this point too limited in scope and intention to be considered a war. Right now, the US and its allies are officially only protecting civilians, not trying to overthrow the government or aid the rebels.
Officially, only Congress can declare war, and they haven't done that. But in the last fifty years, it's become increasingly uncommon for the US and many other countries to declare war at all. That's why wars like Vietnam, Korea, Afghanistan and Iraq (both times) are not officially called wars at all.
Unofficially, though, it's considered to be a war when the US commits its official military forces against a clearly identified enemy political entity. (By this definition, Iraq and Afghanistan were over a long time ago.) Since that hasn't happened yet with Libya, we're technically not at war. Which is why the generals and government officials talking to the press have been using all these vague terms to describe the "military action" going on there.
However, NPR explains, if at some point the Ghaddafi forces hurt American interests and the goal of the action changes from just protecting the people to overthrowing Ghaddafi directly, what we are seeing now will retroactively have been considered a war from the very beginning.
Does that make everything clear and simple? No? Oh well...

Saturday, March 12, 2011

NPR gets Punked

Last week, Ronald Schiller, an NPR executive was caught on hidden cameras calling the Tea Party racist and making other non-PC remarks while meeting with people posing as Muslim philanthropists. In this essay, Peter Catapano of the NY Times Opinionator blog asks: is James O'Keefe, the mastermind behind this "expose," a journalist? Should we call what he did journalism?

Catapano quotes many opinions on the role of "guerrilla reporting" in journalism, and he doesn't side definitively with one side or the other. On one hand, a little bit of deception is a natural part of journalism. For example, reporters often pretend to know less about a subject than they really know in order to get a subject to open up. On the other hand, it seems especially underhanded

and sneaky to create an entire fake organization and record a conversation via hidden cameras.

What do you think? Is this a legitimate form of investigation, or a sneaky prank? And either way, should the "expose" that's been uncovered be taken seriously or dismissed?

(note: I wrote this last week - for some reason the post never published...but I think the issue is still relevant.)

Monday, March 7, 2011

A small town in a global world.

Local political coverage is really important...right?

When I was younger, my family either subscribed to the local Morris County Daily Record, or the regional Newark Star Ledger (we switched to the Star Ledger because my mother liked their crosswords better.) So for old times sake, I visited the Star Ledger's website to see how it was doing.
Here are Monday's front page stories:
- an investigation into flight cancelation statistics
- a huge photo of the champion NJ high school wrestler
- an editorial on Newark's school system
- an article about a tax issue in NJ towns
- one AP article on Libya

At the Morris Daily Record, we have one article about a mysterious death in Parsippany, another about a guy who killed his wife in Washington Township, and a nice article about kids in Morristown who are pen pals with kids in Nepal.

Our world is so globally linked these days, that I honestly think people don't feel as connected to their hometowns as they once were. People are interested in reading about what's going on in the whole world, whether that means Hollywood or the Middle East. Either way, they don't care about local town politics, state legislation, or small-time corruption at the local level.

This is ironic and sad, I think, because this is the stuff that actually affects our lives. Petty small town politics make the difference between your town getting a new train station or not, the corrupt chief of police being prosecuted, or the school system getting reformed. This is the day to day stuff that really matters, and if people don't care to read about it, the reporters who want to do a public service by investigating and reporting on it, are never given that opportunity.

Here's a class poll - does anyone from a small town (or a city other than NY) keep up with local politics? Vote in local elections? Read the town newspaper?

Friday, March 4, 2011

Who is our Ha'aretz?

The New Yorker just did a piece on Ha'aretz, the far-left Israeli newspaper. It describes the way Ha'aretz reporters have lived in Ramallah and Gaza for years, to get to know the locals and try to write about life on their side of the wall a little bit. Ha'aretz has become well-known for their far left approach to Israeli politics, and to Palestinian relations in particular.
At the same time, though, Israeli society at large is said to be moving to the right, putting Ha'aretz in a strange position. Their readership is shrinking, but even people who don't read the newspaper themselves see it as having an important place in society. That voice of dissent, the newspaper with the really out-there opinions that few people agree with, is an important voice--and one that can't be provided by a mainstream news outlet. Think of it as the polar opposite of Fox News (except Fox is of course pretty mainstream in that it's hugely popular.)
Who is our Ha'aretz? Do we have any media and reporters that are willing to go through what the Ha'aretz staff goes through (ostracization, mockery, a pipe bomb attempt) to bring to light unpopular opinions so they too are included in the public dialogue? I somehow don't think so.